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Joe Perry Rocks (The Interview)
Rocks: My Life in and Out of Aerosmith, the name of Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry’s new book is a play on the band’s classic ‘70s album which spawned such classic tracks as Back in the Saddle, Last Child and Combination.
But it also serves to express how the musical community views this seasoned rock and roll star. Quite simply, Joe Perry epitomizes the word rocks.
Along with Steven Tyler, as one half of Aerosmith’s celebrated “toxic twins,” Perry, tracing the footprints of mighty musical brethren Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, personifies the blazin’ six-string renegade, firing off incendiary riffs heard ‘round the world while looking the part of perennial rock and roll badass.
Rocks, his new autobiography, penned with renowned author David Ritz, allows the Beantown axe meister to share his story on his own terms, pulling the curtain back to reveal the hard fought tales of Perry, rock and roll survivor, cocked and loaded.
Rock Cellar Magazine: There’s been a band bio, Walk This Way and autobiographies written by both Steven Tyler and Joey Kramer. What was the impetus behind you doing a book?
Joe Perry: Let me see…there’s a number of things. First of all, I had my own questions I wanted to answer about how we ended here. I get asked, as you can imagine, so many times, “How did you manage to keep the band together?” People also ask me a lot, “How did you manage to have a marriage that’s lasted this long in that business?” Then there’s a list of questions that people ask and then there are things that people just don’t know about like the Collins years (Tim Collins, Aerosmith’s former manager).
People see the little bits and pieces and the press kind of wants to just put the juicy stuff out there about Seven and I. Recently, somebody actually asked me if the band was still together (laughs) or how do I deal with Steven?
The perceptions about this band that are out there are so confused. A lot of stuff that was in that book, Walk this Way, was so wrong.
Our manager at the time (Tim) Collins edited the book before we saw it and we didn’t know that.
At the end of it all there were a lot of things going on when that book was going on so it wasn’t like we were completely focused on it. So with my new book, Rocks, I wanted to set the record straight from my perspective on everything that went down.
The public thinks, “Yeah, they’re a bunch of drug addicts that cleaned up and got it all back together again and it was just amazing.” There’s much more to it than that. If anybody’s interested, the story behind all that went down even fascinates me…how we managed to get 40 years under our belt and are still going strong.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Was it cathartic for you to write the book?
Joe Perry: I think it was time for me to lay it out there and just tell my side of what it looked like with my side of things. I wanted to let people know how hard it is to do what we do. For some people it’s easier than others, everybody’s different. We had some mountains to climb and we still do.
It’s a never-ending thing if you choose to do it. But I’ll tell you, getting onstage and playing is still the glue that holds us together.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What was the original Aerosmith lineup like with Ray Tabano on guitar?
Joe Perry: Raymond was a good rhythm guitar player in the classic sense. With the Beatles you had George Harrison who was the lead guitar player and John Lennon who played rhythm and there was a very clear distinction between what each cat played. That’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to Fleetwood Mac and especially the Yardbirds when they had Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the band at the same time.
They were breaking tradition with two lead guitar players in the same band. It wasn’t like listening to the Shadows or the Ventures where you had one guy playing lead and one guy playing chords. I didn’t have that with Ray and I wanted that element in Aerosmith. Ray was really focused on playing rhythm and I was doing the leads. When the band got together Steven (Tyler) wanted someone he knew in the band and he knew Ray for a long time.
I didn’t know Steven very well at that point: I had talked with him a few times and jammed with him a few times. He said, “I wanna bring this guy in to play guitar.” The last three years before that I’d played with a three-piece band or a band that had five or six players. I’d tried every kind of a lineup so I was kind of flexible there. Raymond had a really cool look. He had a leather shop.
He was into the American Indian kind of look and had hair down to his butt. He wore an Indian chest plate. If he had continued to grow with the rest of the band he may still have been in the band. But he was kind of all over the place. He’d be late for rehearsals. Not only were we were learning and getting better on our own as individuals, we were learning to find a sound and starting to develop a real musical backbone by putting our own touches on the cover songs that we were doing.
That led to us finding our sound. I found there was a space there and a gap; there weren’t many American bands that were doing that two-guitar blues thing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Movin’ Out was the first song you wrote with Steven.
Joe Perry: Yeah. It did put us on the path. It was really an exercise in learning how to write together and seeing how that worked. Up until then we hasn’t written together. The original songs we had were basically songs that Steven had from his other bands before that. He had a notebook with some songs in them and some of those showed up on the first and second albums. He was a couple of years older than us and had been playing professionally for five years at that point.
And this was really mine and Tom’s (Hamilton) first real professional band. We felt, “This is it, we’re going for it.” Our previous group, The Jam Band, was a lot of fun and even that lineup changed from summer to summer. It was pretty loose and was a vehicle to just get out and play.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In the early days when the band was all living together on Commonwealth Avenue did you experience moments of doubt that the band would make it?
Joe Perry: At that point when Steven joined the band he was actually at the point where he didn’t really know what he was gonna do. He’d been in five, six bands before. He’d been signed to MGM and had a single out. That fall he was gonna spend the winter up in New Hampshire living in a rented house. He lived in a house with his bands or when he was living in Yonkers, he’s try this band and it would break up and then try another and it would break up.
He was playing with his one partner, Don Solomon, and he wasn’t getting anywhere. I know he was kind of getting disillusioned with the whole thing…he said to me he was thinking about doing something else and forgetting about the music business. He was getting sick of it and at the very least wanted to take a break from it for awhile. So that’s when I said, “Look, Tom and I have moved into this apartment. We’re looking for a singer and a drummer and we’ve got a couple more bedrooms and we’re looking to fill them, what do you think?” So he decided to join up with us and Joey (Kramer) came in too.
Steven was a world class singer and I knew that we would be able to survive. My goal was to have a band that could support us. I wasn’t really thinking that someday we’re gonna be playing at Madison Square Garden. That was a long ways away. All I cared about was having a band that was good enough that could support itself so we wouldn’t have to have real jobs. I had dropped out of school and had spent two or three years working different kind of jobs and I wanted to play music. So my idea of the success of the band was being able to be good enough that we could have a steady income. Of course, Steven was like, “We’ve gotta get into the studio and we’ve gotta get signed!”
Ever since he was seven years old he wanted to be a star. The Beatles and Stones came along and he was enamored with the whole thing. Writing songs and getting into the studio was the key for him. He was always the dreamer and I was the guy that said, “Well, let’s get through next week.”
Of course we had to practice and keep working at it. As it turned out it seemed like every time things were looking like it was gonna collapse, somebody would pull something out of the hat or something would happen or we’d get another gig. We had the calendar on the wall on the apartment and I was a happy guy as long as we had gigs booked.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Was there a big break that put the band a step ahead towards getting signed?
Joe Perry: Actually, our first manager Frank Connolly was the biggest promoter in Boston. He was getting older and fading out of the picture. Times were changing, he brought The Beatles to Boston and he brought Jimi Hendrix to town. Don Law, another promoter, was coming up. Every town had their version of The Fillmore. In Boston it was the Boston Tea Party, which was run by Don Law.
He was young and had a handle on the whole new wave of music. But Frank heard us and he believed in us. He was our mentor and helped us out. He knew that he was out of his depth as far as New York goes. As far as knowing the record company people, he knew the management team of Leber/Krebs from some of the bands that he had booked. They had just come up from the mailroom and were just starting a management company. They had signed a couple of songwriters, the New York Dolls and a couple of New York bands.
Frank knew if we were gonna get to the next level we would need guys like Lever/Krebs. The first gig we did at Max’s Kansas City was really an audition for Leber/Krebs to manage us. Then the next one was them bringing us down and inviting record companies and that’s when we got passed on. Then the third time we played Max’s was when Clive (Davis) heard us and that’s when he signed us to Columbia Records.
Rock Cellar Magazine: At those early shows, you opened for The Kinks, Humble Pie and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
How did the challenge of winning over an audience work to the band’s advantage?
Joe Perry: Opening shows for Mahavishnu was a bitch. Nobody in their audience wanted to know about us but it made us tougher.
We had to go out there and play for people that didn’t really care about hearing from us. And it wasn’t even a rock crowd; we’re talking about this a jazz/fusion stuff that was very off the wall.
We didn’t win people over. (laughs) They just sat there and clapped politely and we just took our lumps.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you recognize you didn’t have to worry anymore about being dropped from your label and that Aerosmith as a band had arrived?
Joe Perry: I think it might have been when we got our first gold record. We’d done all this work; we had started headlining some shows and were still opening up for some big bands. When you think about making it in the business, getting a gold record is gonna be it. When we finally got a gold record we woke up the next day and went, “Wait a second, we better write another one.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Aerosmith was incredibly prolific in the ‘70s, was it difficult to maintain that level of creativity?
Joe Perry: The struggle was keeping it together after so many years of work. We worked so hard to get noticed. It wasn’t like we put our first record out and it became this big smash.
We’ve all seen great bands where their first record broke them; everybody from Queen to Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana. We put our first record out and it didn’t do well and we almost got dropped from our label.
It took us time to learn what we were doing. When we landed on the scene the whole entertainment industry was rife with partying. You naturally assumed that everybody around you was doing cocaine. We worked to get the first record out then and then toured behind it and did the second record, Get Your Wings and toured behind that and then the third record (Toys in the Attic) and toured behind it, we got burned out on each other but we didn’t get burned out on the music.
Rock Cellar Magazine: If you could go back to 1972 and whisper a piece of advice in a young Joe Perry’s ear, what would you tell yourself?
Joe Perry: I’d tell myself to put my foot down more emphatically when it came to the lawyers and the managers. I didn’t realize how much power we had at that point, probably because we almost got dropped at the beginning of our career. We came up in Boston and weren’t rubbing elbows with a lot of musicians who were making it.
As the ‘70s went along I knew we had more power. We should have taken a hold of our power much sooner. We should have toured Europe more. There are a lot of things in our career that I really question. But it was tough getting everybody in line; we were kind of amazed that things were happening in the way they were happening and we didn’t want to fuck with it.
That’s kind of been the paradigm all the way down the line. In the beginning of our career I would have said, “Hey look guys, unless we really stand up to these people, things aren’t gonna go as well as they should. If there are things we think are gonna hurt us, don’t go along with it.” The problem was we didn’t realize how much power we really had. We can tell these guys to sit down and shut up and if we want to go to Europe, we’re gonna go to Europe.
If anything goes the way you want them to, you’re gonna want to have someone on board that you can trust who can dictate what you need.
Be sure to pick up a copy of Joe Perry’s new book, Rocks!
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